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Saudi Arabia and its Challenges 30, May 2015

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The following article was published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog on 25 March 2015.

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In 2010 at a conference in Riyadh, an academic presented a cogent case as to why the fiscal picture for Saudi Arabia was, in the medium and long term, looking grim. His figures were correct, and his conclusions were not hyperbolic, but sensibly grounded in the facts. Nevertheless, the Saudi participants around the table, ranging from ministers to CEOs to academics to the state’s leading journalists, greeted the presentation with a weary shrug. Their point was that they had seen just such cogent presentations every five years for decades and yet the sky never did quite manage to fall in.

It would be, therefore, really quite a significant call to suggest that on this occasion, as opposed to the countless previous assertions, Saudi Arabia is actually facing some kind of a crisis. Yet, it appears that the state may well be entering just such a concerning phase.

At the core of this thesis are three interlinked factors that are facing quite unprecedented change and these changes look set to – at the very least – vastly complicate the already Gordian difficulties facing the Kingdom.

Oil: supply and demand

Saudi Arabia is, understandably, a state synonymous with oil. The substance has transformed the state entirely and continues to be the centre of gravity of the state’s economy. Yet it could be argued that there are vast supply and demand-related changes afoot that may fundamentally undermine the state’s central reliance on its black gold.

On the demand side, the central problem is that it is rising in places that Saudi Arabia does not really want it to rise, and falling in places where it would rather it didn’t. Most importantly, demand is rising within the country. This is not a good thing. Given the subsidies that exist for oil and its derivative products, the government loses money refining and processing oil for its domestic market as well as having less oil to sell internationally. There are even studies noting that Saudi Arabia may be a net oil importer by the late-2030s, a notion that indicates just how much of a paradigm-shift the Kingdom may be about to undergo.

Otherwise on the demand side, as America becomes ever more self-sufficient, the importance of Saudi Arabia declines, if it doesn’t disappear given the US’s reliance on a stable Gulf region is critical to its economy. That this drop in US demand is being picked up by China is a boon, but even growth in China is slowing relatively speaking and nor is China in any position in the foreseeable future to provide Saudi Arabia with any kinds of security guarantees.

In terms of supply too, Saudi Arabia’s dominating role in the oil industry may be under threat. Eventually, the likes of Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, or Iran – all of which have huge oil reserves – are likely to add in a few more millions of barrels per day in oil to the market. Similarly, the unconventional hydrocarbon revolution has allowed states to tap reserves of oil and gas that were previously uneconomical. This means, first and foremost, that America may transition to an oil exporter – a large one – by the end of the decade; something that will upend the recent dynamics in the market.

These factors coalesce to present Saudi Arabia with a range of problems. At a time of burgeoning budgets inspired by a fear of the Arab Spring and growing youth unemployment, the state looks destined to spend even more on its subsidies. Meanwhile, the plunging oil price that looks set to stay nearer $50 per barrel than the $100 that markets and states had become used to, robs the state of further income. This all means that the state will run a budget deficit for the first time in years in 2015 and will continue with them for years to come. With low interest rates on the international market, huge foreign reserves, and being relatively debt-free to start with, this is not that problematic in the short-term at least. But the fiscal medium and long term look decidedly murky.

Defence and security

Historically, the Gulf states do not really use their militaries in an expeditionary fashion. They have preferred to rely on alliances, defence guarantees, and international coalitions where possible. But this is slowly changing, and the states are demonstrating a willingness to actually use their expensively assembled military kit around the Middle East. This is most clearly seen in the recent Saudi-led large-scale bombing campaign in Yemen. There are a variety of likely causes of this increased desire to utilise their forces.

The increasing Gulf disenchantment with America in recent years has now become palpable. After America dropped their long-term ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Gulf leaders were irate, fearing, ultimately, that America may too one day drop them. This fear of being left alone by America was exacerbated by the ‘Pivot to Asia’ rhetoric and utterly compounded by America’s negotiations with Iran; something Gulf states fear will hasten America’s departure from the region, leaving an emboldened Iran to dominate.

The sense is, therefore, that Saudi Arabia is pointedly noting that if America will not secure the region, then they will. And they are clearly willing to utilise their military capacity towards this end. None of this bodes well for the future.

While America and her allies may well have blundered – spectacularly at times – in the Middle East, the local knowledge of Saudi Arabia is hardly affecting a different outcome so far: the bombing campaign in Yemen has been a brutal, ineffectual one to date. Moreover, Gulf states, unencumbered by the restraint inherent in believing the America will ultimately back them up, may act on their Iranian paranoia, further adversely affecting security in the region.

Succession

Succession in Saudi Arabia has long been a source of concern. In particular, many have been focused on the jump of leadership to a new generation of al-Sauds. Since the state’s modern inception in 1932, the Kings have all been sons of the founder, Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. This has meant that recent Kings and their successors have been exceedingly old and, on occasion, infirm. Two Crown Princes, for example, died in office waiting for now former King Abdullah al-Saud to pass.

But this gap has been breached. In a recent reshuffle, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz ejected his brother, Prince Muqrin, from second in-line to the throne, and replaced him with a grandson of Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, Mohammed Bin Nayef al-Saud. More interestingly, he also installed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the third-in-line to the throne. These two Mohammeds now have portfolios spanning all of the most important sectors of the Kingdom.

The jump to the 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef is no surprise and no cause for alarm. He is widely recognised as the leading candidate of the younger generation, and has steadily but effectively built up a reputation, internally and externally, as a diligent and effective minister.

But the jump to the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is deeply surprising, if not shocking. He has emerged from nowhere to, in but a few months, be made Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, head of the centrally important economic committee, and Chairman of Aramco, the Saudi national oil company.

The implications of this shift are concerning.

Age and seniority are important aspects of Saudi social and political life. It is unclear how so completely trouncing established and widely regarded cultural rules will be received in the longer term. Similarly, both Mohammeds and the King himself come from the same Sudairi clique of the al-Saud. King Salman has, therefore, engineered that his section of the family hold practically all the most important portfolios and he has attempted to make sure that they will hold them for decades to come. Instead of the typical balance between Sudairis and non-Sudairis, this leaves most members of the latter camp completely disenfranchised.

Perhaps installing a young Deputy Crown Prince will prove to be a master-stroke, giving the aged Saudi leadership a voice for Saudi’s youth who dominate the state overall. But, taken together, the mix of a deteriorating fiscal situation, a far more militarily assertive foreign and security policy, controlled by a new leadership overseeing a delicate power balance, does not give confidence as to the longer term stability of the state.

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Breaking the Saudi Rules of Succession 28, May 2015

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The following article was published by the Washington Post in their longer-form blog on 27 May 2015.

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On April 29, 2015, King Salman of Saudi Arabia appointed Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the state’s founder, second-in-line to the throne as crown prince and placed Mohammed bin Salman, a 29-year-old prince, third-in-line as deputy crown prince. The major change comes just months after Salman acceded to the throne on Jan. 23, following the death of his half-brother Abdullah. The relatively seamless transition is surprising after many years of fevered speculation about the complications surrounding what might happen when Saudi Arabia’s leadership finally jumped down a generation instead of just passing the kingly baton from brother to brother. What does this mean for our understanding of power dynamics in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

The latter appointment in particular challenges the expectations of both scholars and analysts. For instance, Saudi-focused scholars, such as Gregory Gause, as well as analysts, such as Simon Henderson, have tended to cogently emphasize the importance of age as a factor in determining positions of authority. How then to explain the appointment of 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to one of the most important positions in the land?

Other popularly cited explanations for royal succession also fall short in explaining the appointment. Henderson has suggested a range of other important factors, such as being a “good Muslim,” having a suitable Saudi lineage, possessing experience and acumen, being popular and offering stability. But again, the most recent changes suggest that some of these attributes – seniority, possessing experience and acumen and perhaps being popular – could be jettisoned with ease when the need arose. The time is therefore ripe to reconsider some of the once self-evident truths that underpin understandings of Saudi Arabia’s political workings

First, seniority within the ranks of the royal family has often been heralded as the primus inter pares factor underpinning the rules of succession in Saudi Arabia. The current Saudi state was united by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1932 when he was 56 years old. Until today, rule has been passed among Abdulaziz’s sons. In order of their accession to the throne, Saud was born around 1902, Faisal 1906, Khalid 1913, Fahd 1921, Abdullah 1924 and Salman 1935. Saud and Faisal were in their 50s when they took power, Khalid and Fahd were in their 60s, and Abdullah and Salman were in their 70s. Unsurprisingly, age has been seen as a “preeminent qualification” in determining the order of ascending to the throne, according to Henderson’s 1994 study and repeated in his 2009 “After Abdullah.” The apparent importance of age fits with widespread understandings of the “enormous meaning” of seniority within the royal family and Saudi society.

But age is not enough. Given that Abdulaziz is reputed to have fathered around 100 children by dozens of wives, older sons have been passed overtime and again, particularly more recently. So age has been a shaping, if not a determining factor. Saudi social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed has gone as far as to suggest that there has long been “no serious commitment to seniority.” Nevertheless, the meteoric rise of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is an astonishing promotion for a man so young.

The rise of the new king’s son suggests that intra-family machinations deserve more attention. Analysts Henderson, Daryl Champion, Joseph A. Kechichian and Thomas W. Lippman have pointed to the importance of the Sudairi section of the Saud family. The name stems from Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who is often referred to as Abdulaziz’s most important wife and whose children have come to dominate Saudi politics in recent decades. There is much to support such a reading. Though King Abdullah ruled with three Sudairi crown princes (two of whom died), he represented for the Sudairis an interregnum between two Sudairi kings, Fahd and Salman. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, two of the most important and influential in Saudi Arabia’s power structure, have been led by Sudairis for over 50 years. The current crown prince and deputy crown prince are both younger generation Sudairis and have centralized control of the key economic and security councils under their auspices.

What does this actually mean, though? The Sudairis are often implicitlydescribed as something approaching a unitary actor in direct, near-zero-sum competition with other groupings led by, say, former king Abdullah. Such suggestions make intuitive sense at the moment, with such a successful Sudairi full-court-press swamping key positions. But the cohesiveness of such groupings is questioned by Gause and Rasheed who frequently and persuasively frame these associations as being temporary and more “manifested in specific historical and political contexts.” The hint behind such assertions is that Sudairi cohesion is far from automatic.

A more positive spin, marketed by commentators ranging from formerambassadors to Saudi Arabia, pliant local newspapers, Washington-based Saudi Arabian lobbying organizations and, most recently, the former head of Britain’s external intelligence agency, has to do with what is being called an “embryonic embrace of meritocracy” taking hold in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz – who served as crown prince from January to April 2015 – might be explained by his lineage. Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni slave, something that tended to rule him out as a potential successor as far as many Saudi-watchers were concerned before he was put in line to the throne – at which point the ever-flexible commentariat brushed off his heritage as hardly mattering at all. Nevertheless, few would disagree that his replacement with Mohammed bin Nayef is something of an upgrade in efficacy, judging by the new crown prince’s impressive domestic and international reputation. Similarly, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, recently shuffled out of the portfolio he held for 40 years, has been plagued by illness and hospital visits for years.

Yet, any semblance of meritocracy falls apart with the colossal (over) promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to defense minister, to head of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, chairman of Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council and now to third-in-line to the throne. For a young man with negligible experience in these (or any other senior) roles, it is difficult to see how it could possibly be interpreted as meritocratic in nature – though his promotion may be an attempt to reflect Saudi Arabia’s youth with60 percent of the population being under 21 years of age.

What about the rules? The key institutional innovation here was the 2006 creation of a 35-member Allegiance Council to agree upon and ratify succession decisions for future monarchs. In March 2014, King Abdullah used the council to rubber-stamp Muqrin as third-in-line to the throne and the statement from the Royal Court declared that this order “shall not be amended or replaced by any means or by whomsoever.” Abdullah seemingly tried to lock in Muqrin as crown prince because Muqrin, lacking a suitable heir, would likely have nominated one of Abdullah’s sons as his crown prince, thus avoiding the taboo of nominating one’s own son.

But this potential move was checkmated and the “irreversible” decree was easily dismissed. With Salman reversing Abdullah’s edict and undercutting the Allegiance Council’s initial decision, unseating a crown prince suddenly looks curiously straightforward. The council, then, appears to function more as a public relations approval body, with the real politics being done behind the scenes. A scenario where there is genuine disagreement in the council is possible to foresee, but would most likely be overcome firstly by closed-door politics or secondly by being bypassed by royal decree.

Rules, decrees, taboos and notional Allegiance Council mandates are there, it turns out, to be broken. Similarly, issues of age and seniority can be easily brushed aside in the short term at least. A certain acknowledgement of the importance of meritocracy, mostly around the edges, is seen as desirable – perhaps a counterweight, even – to naked nepotism at the heart of the issue. The importance of the small Sudairi clique is at best a useful term to group together a subset of the Saud family who continue to play the game of family politics effectively thus far. But its unity should not necessarily be taken for granted.

While ousting Muqrin was a coup for the Sudairis, it was, perhaps first and foremost, a coup for Salman himself – but with unpredictable results. This proves a salient reminder for scholars as to the ultimately changeable nature of domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – and the seemingly unrestricted power that leaders can exert. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince has removed seniority as a decisive factor in Saudi politics in the short-term at least, though Gause et al’s emphasis on the importance of seniority may be an issue that returns in the future. But in the meantime, Salman has increased the players in the game. The zero-sum promotion of a prince inevitably leaves those not selected disgruntled and widens the field with a whole new age bracket of the royal family realizing that they too – all of a sudden – have a legitimate claim on a senior role. Salman’s flouting of tradition provides such princes with extra ammunition in plotting their bids for power. The ultimate test will come when Salman, a 79-year old with significant health problems, shuffles off this mortal coil. Saudi history is not kind to sons of kings who pass away, and with Salman’s precedent-setting unpicking his predecessor’s decree and his bypassing of the Allegiance Council, Mohammed bin Salman in particular is eminently removable.

Saudi defence spending surges 8, March 2015

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ksa defence spending beeb

The BBC has a short but interesting report on Saudi defence spending. It reports that spending in 2014 has risen by 54% to $6.5 billion. Spending is expected to rise to nearly $10bn in 2015. Around $2bn worth of equipment is supplied by the UK, with the majority coming from the US.

The deteriorating situation in various Arab states alongside rivalry with Iran are suggested as the key motivating factors. Interestingly, the domestic issues that that state is suffering from in its eastern provinces are not mentioned, nor are issues of the efficacy of its forces.

See my article from earlier in the week for a bit more detail on some issues surrounding Saudi and its defence spending.

Saudi to borrow some troops from Pakistan? 6, March 2015

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KSA army

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long had the closest of relationships. Extensive elite visits are a norm; the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, visited Riyadh this past week for the third time in 2015 alone.

Pan-Islamic dogma, remittances, aid, and security are the glues that bind the relationship together. Saudi Arabia has graciously spread its religious ideas in Pakistan and, naturally, built the biggest mosque in the country: the Faisal Mosque. Pakistan’s third largest city was even renamed Faisalabad after Saudi’s King Faisal in 1977. Today, there are approximately 1.5million Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, sending home a third of all remittances that Pakistan receives (around $4.73 billion pa).

In return, aside from an acceptable source of workers, Saudi Arabia gets security cooperation. Pakistani soldiers were mobilised in 1990 to defend the Kingdom and cooperation continues though it is not clear how many Pakistani troops are currently deployed in the Kingdom.

Rumours also circulate that there has been some kind of an implicit deal between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan regarding nuclear weapons. Were Iran to properly ‘go nuclear’, the scurrilous theory goes, Saudi Arabia would acquire, in its most plausible iteration, an off-the-shelf nuclear weapon from Pakistan, the world’s first (and only) Islamic nuclear power. Frankly, this strikes me as perfectly plausible and fits with persistent rumours of Saudi’s part-funding of Pakistan’s original nuclear programme.

The latest security cooperation, according to the FT, is decidedly more conventional. Saudi Arabia is, apparently, seeking

to boost the numbers of its [Pakistan’s] troops in the kingdom to help bolster Riyadh’s defences against Islamic militants.

The threats to Saudi Arabia are real and apparent. To the north in Iraq there is Da’esh marauding around and to the south in Yemen, the Houthis – aka Iranians to the Saudis – are in the ascendancy. There are various implications of this iteration of Saudi-Pakistani discussions, chief among which is what this says about the indigenous Saudi Arabian armed forces.

The 2015 IISS Military Balance notes that Saudi Arabia has 227,000 men in active service: 75,000 in the Army; 13,500 in the Navy; 20,000 in the Air Force ; 16,000 in Air Defence; 2,500 in Strategic Missile Forces; and just the 100,000 in the National Guard. Just to briefly and far from exhaustively highlight a few systems and structures, the state possesses around 14 mechanized or armored brigades, 600 main battle tanks, 7 principal surface ships, 69 coastal patrol ships, and 313 ‘combat capable’ aircraft including over 140 F-15s of various types and more than 100 Tornado and Typhoons.

In short, on paper, Saudi Arabia has – to say the least – enough manpower and kit to take on the motley bunch that is Da’esh and defend themselves from whatever fractured, poor grouping might emerge from Yemen. Iran too, on paper, would be the merest of speed bumps on the Saudi march, let alone any other regional state aside from Israel.

But this is not, of course, how things work. Even ignoring issues of irregular tactics being employed by enemy actors which militates against sheer numbers and takes the edge off technologically advanced pieces of kit, there is a deep problem if a state with the putative numbers and military spending of Saudi Arabia needs to borrow some troops from Pakistan for security. Quite the conundrum for the new 29/34 year old Saudi Minister of Defence to solve.

 

 

Grappling With the Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Transition 26, February 2015

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KSA tree

On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became King. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).

So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.

The ministerial merry-go-round

Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).

One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own Prime Minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘Prime Minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest Minister of Defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.

Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of King, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.

So what?

Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.

An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.

Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as Information Minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.

The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.

The known knowns

Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.

With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.

But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.

While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.

The known unknowns

Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young Prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested Prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four Deputy Defence Ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed Minister of Defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.

Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the Princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the Minister of the Interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the Minister of Defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their Governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).

La Plus Ca Change? 

Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.

Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy Crown Prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.

Gulf Troika Troubles 23, April 2014

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The following article was published on 13 March 2014 by the New America Foundation. The original article can be found here.

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It had been coming, some might say, for years. The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States. The Gulf troika are angry that Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, angry that Qatar has typically taken a conciliatory line towards Iran, angry that Qatar did not support Saudi sponsored groups in Syria, and angry overall that Qatar just will not do as it is told.

This dispute remains – at the moment – limited to individually unimportant acts of political showmanship. Yet, the Gulf is a region that does not need any more complications. If clashes in the region that supplies much of the world’s oil and gas transcend from rhetoric to reality, they could undermine economic recovery efforts around the world.

How did we get here – and how likely is this to blow up into a larger, regional conflict? First, a little background on the Gulf: At first glance, one might expect the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to get along better. They are united to varying degrees by broad religious beliefs with Sunni Islam serving as the dominating denomination. The same families, tribes, and economic systems spread across the GCC states; hydrocarbon industries dominate, which has contributed to the creation of similar political systems. And in the face of Iran, an ideologically, historically, politically, and religiously antithetical state menacingly close by, it would be natural to assume that GCC states would overcome their differences and coordinate their action. In fact, the Iranian threat was the instigating factor behind the formation of the GCC.

Aside from a lack of the necessary maturity of the GCC states to overcome their differences, the key reason for their divisions lies in US protection agreements. Coddled with security agreements and reassured with the presence of huge US military bases in the region, the GCC states don’t feel the pressure to overcome disagreements at the behest of overarching security concerns and are insulated from the realities of their region.

The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States.

The subsequent bickering has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early 1990s it reached the level of border clashes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in 1996 Riyadh is alleged to have support of a counter coup against former Emir Hamad Al Thani after he took over from his father in 1995. This sour bilateral relationship limped on until 2002 when Saudi Arabia finally had enough and removed its Ambassador from Doha. He did not return until 2008, symbolic of Saudi Arabia finally coming to terms with the independence of Qatar. Though it became independent from Britain in 1971, Saudi Arabia’s rulers still saw the Qatari Peninsula as essentially part of Saudi Arabia: it had extracted taxes from those on the Peninsula, it commanded the loyalty of large tribes draped across the ‘border,’ and Qatar’s leadership in the 1970s and 1980s had shown deference to the Kingdom.

The post-1995 leaders were different. They sought to carve out Qatar’s independence, implementing a raft of policies that served to simultaneously antagonize Saudi Arabia and ram home Qatar’s independence. It worked: Qatar riled the leadership in Riyadh and unequivocally established Qatar’s independence.

Eventually, with the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha, the countries reached a compromise:  Saudi Arabia understood that it could not control Qatar anymore, but the more egregious examples of Qatar’s behaviour – notably Doha-based news organization Al Jazeera’s pointed Saudi-focused exposés – had to stop, which they did.

The Arab Spring upset this negotiated truce. Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support and it was initially successful. It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Mubarak was a stalwart who had friends in the Gulf. Worse still, he was replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood Government: a movement that had long been anathema to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In particular, both countries feared the group’s influence domestically. Now, their brotherly state, Qatar, was directly boosting an organization that had created a movement with the power to marshal the support of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support…It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

As Qatar’s support for various Muslim Brothers became increasingly a problem for neighbouring Gulf states, so too the speeches from Qatar by the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent cleric, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, were becoming symbolic of the burgeoning differences. In late January 2014 he accused the UAE Government of being ‘against God’, which drew a predictable reaction on social media and led to the summoning of the Qatari Ambassador to the UAE Foreign Ministry for an explanation. This occurred around the same time that he was also uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia’s links to the military junta in Egypt and rumors surfaced about deep anger in Riyadh as to Qatar’s meddling with Houthi rebels in Yemen. These exact issues have antagonized before, but in this new climate, they have taken on a new importance.

Diplomatic relations haven’t improved much since the start of the Arab Spring. But the recent withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini Ambassadors doesn’t indicate big change if it is merely symbolic. What Qatar’s leadership needs to work out is whether this is instead one more step along a continuum of escalation.

Because it could be that the UAE and Saudi are in the process of escalation, or they could simply be trying to change Qatar’s discourse and direction; to cow the independent streak that it has displayed for two decades. They may be trying to take advantage of the young Emir in his first year in office.

Emir Tamim is now stuck between the Scylla of not being able to capitulate in the face of such pressure and the Charybdis of needing to normalize relations to a degree lest the situation escalate even more. The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

So what’s Qatar to do? Emir Tamim’s options are limited. In private and over time, Qatar can promise to quieten down its support for its various Muslim Brotherhood contacts around the Middle East. Many of them have in any case been outmaneuvered in recent months and are less useful today. Restoring a semblance of non-biased reporting and editorial control at Al Jazeera Arabic by redefining its editorial line or removing some journalists, could restore the channel’s image, which has plummeted recently as its Muslim Brotherhood-supporting policies have gathered strength. This would be good for Al Jazeera’s wider reputation, good for Qatar, and placatory to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the coming weeks, the Emir of Kuwait will launch a mediation effort, a reminder that Kuwait and Oman have not joined in this boycott: That’s not surprising given Kuwait’s fractious domestic politics and Oman’s independent stance. It also underscores an important point: This is not a united GCC front against Qatar.

Since the initial Ambassadorial withdrawal, Emirati and Saudi journalists have been pressured to stop writing for Qatari newspapers: I am sure that that Qatari press will survive. If relations remain at this nigh-on puerile level, then we can hope that Saudi and the UAE have finished for this round. Though the Kuwaiti Emir may offer a shorter-term palliative, for a lasting truce, we might have to wait for leadership changes in the two antagonistic states: something that is likely not that far away in both states given the ages and ill health of their leadership.

 

On KSA: The Knowns and the Unknowns 6, April 2013

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This article was published by YourMiddleEast last month.

In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, uttered his now infamous speech about what was and was not known about the link between Iraq and supplying terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction.

“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

While the language is deeply contorted, Rumsfeld’s tripartite system of segmenting classes of information is not an unreasonable rubric to use when assessing an issue. Given the latest intrigues in the elite of Saudi Arabia that had analysts scrambling to engage in the Arab version of Sovietology to explain a completely unexpected move, the application of any logical rubric to this most convoluted of issues is welcome to ascertain exactly what we know we know.

The known knowns

On 1st February 2013 Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This appointment shocked Saudi watchers as the received wisdom suggested that Muqrin would be ineligible because of his Yemeni lineage on his mother’s side. While Muqrin becoming Crown Prince and King is now a likely outcome, the fact that few expected him to be there in the first place acts as a prompt to revisit some of these known knowns.

The position of Second Deputy Prime Minister is important and has signalled ‘Crown Prince in waiting’ in recent transitions even if it has been unfilled at times, notably from August 2005 to March 2009. Nevertheless, Muqrin’s continued ascent is not certain. The 1992 ‘Basic Law of Governance’ and the 2006 ‘Allegiance Council’ are both mechanisms that endow, respectively, the King and the Crown Prince in conjunction with leading Princes the power to amend those in line to the throne.

While one may expect Murqin – a relatively spry sexagenarian or septuagenarian (the ages of Saudi Royalty belonging in the ‘known unknown’ category) – to rise to the office of King relatively soon particularly given the age and increasing infirmity of the King and the Crown Prince, this too is far from certain. King Fahd (r.1982-2005) was incapacitated for most of the last decade of his rule, yet neither he nor his supporters thought it better for him to step aside. In Kuwait complete physical and mental incapacity did not forestall Saad ascending to the office of Emir in 2006. In that instance it was Kuwait’s vocal and uncontrollable Parliament that forced him to resign after only nine days ‘in power.’ Bar typical intra-family squabbling, Saudi Arabia has no equivalent that could push through such a measure were it needed.

It is also implicitly assumed that Muqrin’s promotion means that Saudi Arabia’s rulers will now have to move to the next generation. Since the founding of the modern state of Saudi Arabia by Ibn Saud in 1932, rule has passed directly to one of his sons. King Abdullah, the current incumbent, became King when he was in his eighties, while two of his Crown Princes (Sultan and Nayef) have already died while Crown Prince Salman is believed to be largely infirm and in his late seventies.

Given that Murqin is the youngest son of Ibn Saud this means that several of his older brothers have been passed over in his favour. In Saudi Arabia where there is a premium placed on age seniority, this suggests that they have run out of suitable sons of Ibn Saud and a generational shift is imminent. While this is, again, logical if not likely, it must not be forgotten that should Salman or Murqin become King they can install whomever they choose, as long as they can corral support for the decision.

Known unknowns

While the generational jump to Ibn Saud’s grandchildren could be postponed the eventual shift is the central known unknown of Saudi politics.

Muhammad Bin Nayef, the son of the former influential Minister of Interior and Crown Prince, leads speculation after becoming the first of the second generation to oversee a principal Ministry when he took over from his uncle Prince Ahmed as Minister of the Interior in November 2012. Believed to be highly capable in his former role in Counter Terrorism at the Ministry with an impeccable lineage and enough influence already to meet officially with President Obama in January 2013, he was a strong candidate for the post of Second Deputy Prime Minister and remains prominent.

However, things are not always what they seem in Riyadh. Many assumed that Muqrin’s abrupt removal as head of intelligence in July 2012, coming in the wake of increasing public criticism, was a sign of him losing power. Instead this move was a precursor to assuming the position of second in line to the throne.

Instead of sifting through the minutiae of each candidate’s CV and family linkages or investing too heavily in court gossip, it is more fruitful to seek a set of guidelines and factors that will inform the decision-making.

Firstly, there are traditional factors to consider. He must be a grandson of Ibn Saud and while age seniority is important, as Muqrin’s ascension and Muhammad Bin Nayef’s replacement of his uncle at the Ministry of the Interior showed, it is clearly not a defining concern. Of greater importance is a demonstrable track record of effective leadership in an august Ministry or an important region. The challenges facing Saudi Arabia are legion and a would-be ruler from the next generation will have to prove that he has the pedigree and the aptitude to work effectively.

Though senior Princes confirm a putative Crown Prince, they have to take into account an element of popular support. Similarly, given the inequalities in the Kingdom and the place that corruption is widely believed to have had as lending impetus to the Arab Spring, a relatively uncorrupted reputation would be an advantage.

Any candidate who can carefully craft such an image will reap significant gains given the importance of presenting a positive public face. The use of the press by much of the elite in Saudi Arabia is barely one step up from Pathé news. Bland press releases with little actual news but with plenty of references to the religious formalities conducted before, during, and after each meeting are adorned with pictures of King Abdullah or other leading Royals with unfeasibly black beards and moustaches. Given the increasingly media savvy Saudi citizens, as shown in a recent survey that found Riyadh to be the 10th most active city in the world on Twitter, such anachronistic media handling is all the more jarring.

The fact that Muqrin has no recorded full-brothers or sons with top-level experience suggests that he may be a relatively impartial arbiter. His well documented closeness to King Abdullah hints that he would look to an effective, technocratic successor as opposed to being concerned with austere religious credentials. But most of all he will look for the consensus candidate; someone that can command authority quickly in a Kingdom that strives for stability above all else.

Unknown unknowns

An unknown unknown is unknown but one can posit from where critical, game-changing concerns may arise.

An Arab Spring redux may strike Saudi Arabia. The economic dynamics and disparities in the Kingdom are acute. The Saudi ‘Arab Spring Budget’ designed to counter nascent protests with a flood of new jobs, pay increases, and house-construction projects worked but fundamental issues remain. Another incident such as the 2009 Jeddah floods which diverted attention to gross corruption and mismanagement could ignite latent anger. Equally, the continued implosion of Bahrain or Kuwait’s Parliamentary wrangles escalating to wide-spread civil unrest could instigate troubles, particularly in Saudi’s combustible Eastern Province where Shia-based unrest continues.

Given the ill health of King Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, and the relatively advanced years of Muqrin, a series of quick successions is not out of the question. Any number of permutations could force the new elite to arrive at hastily contrived arrangements. With the potential of a grandson of Ibn Saud sitting on the throne for multiple decades with the corollary that other members of his generation lose their opportunity at attaining the top job, there is ample reason for those overlooked to agitate in the wings for a better spot.

While the future of Saudi Arabia could be an unknown unknown with untold effects from existing or future challenges destabilising the Kingdom, Saudis have heard such pronouncements on a regular basis for decades. Yet the Kingdom prevailed. There may not be anyone in the near future who could match the figure of King Abdullah who has overseen nearly two decades of tumultuous Saudi history and commands widespread respect for his slow modernising moves. But elite interests, while factional and facing new internal issues, are all predicated on maintaining their exclusive grip on power; a deeply motivating and unifying concept.

A trip to the Kingdom 18, January 2013

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I am currently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a conference to discuss the region in light of these ever so changing times. It’s always interesting to come to the Kingdom and even better when you’re here with leading academics and the most erudite and informed of Saudis. Some thoughts:

– It’s been at least six months since I visited another GCC country so it’s nice to go to Riyadh to be reminded of the differences between the states (or at least two of them). Everyone knows that Riyadh is a huge city but only flying over it and driving through it do you see the level of sprawl with the city forever splurging into the desert in a low-rise tide of villas. Doha it is not.

– We visited the Saudi National Museum. I had no idea that Saudi’s history was as extensive as it appears to be; a true ‘crossroads of civilization’ as one Saudi put it. As yet it seems that much of this history going back thousands of years has barely begun to be uncovered and the Kingdom must be one of the least touched but richest countries on earth for archaeologists.

– The discussions that I attended in the Saudi capital were of the highest caliber  The Saudi academics and attendees – all Western educated – were hugely impressive. They were articulate, erudite and intelligent which is – of course – no surprise given how long Saudi has been sending its best students abroad. Qatar cannot and can never hope to compete; it just doesn’t have the critical mass of people to engage in this kind of education. Indeed, I am happy to be corrected, but I suspect that there were more political science PhDs in the conference room alone than political science PhDs earned by all Qataris in the last decade.

– There was staunch Saudi support for Bahrain. The arguments were nuanced and far more erudite than the usual ‘it’s Iran’, though this refrain was used too. Two trends of argument were interesting in particular.

Firstly was the notion of ‘what do you expect?’ If there were a popularly elected government via perfect elections then this would be Shia-led given the population dynamics and such a government would be – so the argument went – intrinsically disposed to the Iranian government creating some kind of a Shia bastion just off KSA’s coast. The analogy of the Cuban Missile Crisis was used to illustrate this point. I don’t agree with this logic, but it makes a certain sense.

Secondly, it was interesting how the West’s worst activities were used as cover for Bahrain’s worst activities. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were used as a calling out of the West’s double standards. ‘Look at the things you [sic] do when your ‘national security’ is at risk. It is the same in Bahrain’. While I don’t agree with this – one should hardly use the atypical, controversial and maligned activities of the West as a model or the most base excuse – this is a powerful argument in its own right and reminds one of how easily eroded the theoretical moral high ground can be.

– The talks were attended by a senior Saudi Prince. He came for the opening evening lecture and the subsequent dinner. Much to my surprise he came back the day after for the 12 hour day of presentations and talks and came for dinner again that evening. He was erudite, engaging, open, witty, and substantively contributed to every panel discussion. There was no ceremony about his presence and he took the bus in the evening to the second dinner. For a variety of reasons I just can’t imagine the same happening almost anywhere else in the Gulf.

– Saudi itself was the center of much of the discussions. A UK based academic gave an excellent if familiar ‘Saudi is in financial peril’ talk and it is impossible to disagree that going forward a decade or so the combination of increasing salaries in the increasing Government sector, the struggling private sector, the surging domestic energy demands of the Kingdom and a range of structural issues such as industry’s dependency on cheap fuel mean that the Kingdom is facing huge challenges. He also noted that Saudi’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) was staggeringly high.

There is no answer to these challenges but the numerous Saudis around the table were somewhat weary of these concerns having heard very similar versions of these ‘Saudi is ok now but in 5 years…’ for decades now. Of course those around the table were the elite in the Kingdom and are unrepresentative of the Saudi population as a whole. Nevertheless in defence of the Kingdom, so to speak, they made some good points. 1) The Kingdom has proven to be surprisingly resilient before. 2) There is a staggering amount of waste – ‘fat’ as one contributor put it – in the Government sector that can be seen as an area for streamlining as and when budget pressures necessitate. 3) The Saudi Government controls up to 75% of the economy and could privatize industries if the buffers really were approaching giving them a potentially huge windfall. Of course none of this is straight forward – the modern age, as an American contributor pointed out, has a raft of unique, new and resilient structural changes (media openness etc) and cutting fat is not necessarily that easy – but these were, I thought, interesting points. I still think that Saudi is facing catastrophic challenges in the next 15 years but the issue demands a lot more thought that I’ve been able to give it thus far.

Other random points:

– The Ottomans legalised gay marriage [CORRECTION] decriminalised homosexuality in 1876

– Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city

– Apparently the US Embassy Ministry in Baghdad has approximately 1000 Americans working there but only 7 Americans who speak Arabic. Good stuff.

Of KSA and the Gulf Union 13, July 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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I wrote the following article for e-International Relations on KSA and the Gulf Union, but this time with extra subtle literary allusion.

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In mid-December 2011 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to move towards “a stage of union in a single entity”. What exactly he meant by this was never officially fleshed out, as is the way in the Gulf where public diplomacy is a rarity. Instead it was left for the editorialists, a few scattered comments by Ministers, and peoples’ fevered imaginations to fill in the blanks particularly in the run up to the following GCC meeting in May 2012.

Stalwart Saudi columnists extolled the virtues of the inevitable fraternal linking of states, their counterparts in the Iranian press castigated this move as divisive and provocative, and Western analysts resolutely pointed out the difficulties inherent in some form of a Union. As the May meeting approached, Riyadh was bedecked with GCC flags for the ceremony, the pro-Union editorials spewed out copy building on a bullish pro-Union speech by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Faisal, and an odd air of expectancy filled the region. Despite the obvious difficulties of such a Union and the myriad problems it would create and cracks it would paper over, it appeared as if through force of will alone Riyadh was going to pull a Unionised rabbit out of the hat.

Yet, to quote Lord Palmerston, states have neither permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests, and so it proved. The May meeting proved to be an anticlimactic non-event, with the only outcome being promise of another meeting in December 2012. Clearly the elite in Saudi Arabia colossally misjudged the whole situation.

It seemed to make sense

One can understand the frustration of Saudi’s elite. No country in the Gulf with the possible exception of Qatar at all welcomed the Arab Spring. For Saudi Arabia, a country which has enjoyed spectacular oil receipts for decades yet whose people suffer from profound unemployment, a lack of basic opportunities, badly aging infrastructure not to mention a repressive social atmosphere, the Arab Spring not only forced the Government to crack down in their eastern province but also splurge $130bn on a palliative budget to stem revolutionary-inspired ideas.

Moreover, on the Kingdom’s door step in Bahrain, the Spring had a deleterious effect on the fragile status quo. The Shia majority who have been economically and socially disenfranchised for generations rose up and were crushed with varying degrees of brutality.

This situation, which Saudi Arabia erroneously believed was caused by Iran, opened up a potentially critical wound right next to Saudi’s own Shia population sitting atop the majority of its oil facilities, which, they feared, could be exploited nefariously by Iran. The fact that America had abandoned so quickly – as Riyadh saw it – a long term ally in Hosni Mubarak in Egypt enraged Saudi Arabia who at some level feared that they too could suffer the same fate. Well, it was reasoned, if America was not going to shore up long-term friendly allies, Saudi would. Duly Saudi Arabia sent over a thousand of its troops and armoured vehicles into Bahrain in February 2011 as a show of force to defend Bahrain ‘against Iran’.

This military support bolstered years of economic support in terms of investment, shared oil receipts, and gifts. The Spring sent Western banks scurrying from Manama deepening Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future. Indeed, given the calm and prosperous shores of Doha and Abu Dhabi but a few miles from Manama, there seems little chance that these western banks will return to Manama. Not only is Bahrain’s future, therefore, resolutely tied to Saudi Arabia but the ruling Sunni Al Khalifah family, facing such stiff internal issues, are doubly likely to rely on their fraternal Saudi brethren for support, particularly given the Iranian menace’s lurking stature (in Bahraini and Saudi eyes at least).

Quotes from the Bahraini King’s spokespeople even emerged just before the May meeting talking about the need to meet future challenges with “a more united front”. Yet it was not to be.

As for notions that the shared Iranian menace that all Gulf States face would force the smaller States to join Saudi Arabia in forming a protective Union similarly proved to be wide of the mark. This, despite examples of Iranian perfidy perennially peppering leaders’ speeches, Iranian spy rings being caught in Kuwait on several occasions, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops attacking Qatari unmanned rigs in the shared gas field and any number of bellicose speeches emerging from the Iranian Parliament and Press.

Rhetoric versus reality

It is rather easy for the Arab Gulf States to agitate in one form or another about Iran’s perfidy. Such a policy is extremely popular domestically plugging into thousands of years of cultural, religious, political, and social animosity. It also neatly fits into modern political and regional dynamics and one can easily find some tangential evidence relating to Iran’s nefarious tentacles when necessary.

While the small Gulf States would like some form of reassurance against the Iranian threat – however they perceive it – there is an opportunity cost to be calculated. Specifically, while Iran poses some kind of threat, so too do the smaller states detect some kind of threat from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the regional Arab behemoth. Historically, politically and in terms of the basic building blocks of traditional power reckoning (population, country size, military might, economic sway) Saudi Arabia has long dominated the region. The smaller states, though they pack a post-modern punch themselves in various ways with their soft power ventures and such, nevertheless harbour concerns regarding Saudi’s sheer size and overbearing policies as evidenced in their Gulf Union push.

Additionally, a key but often overlooked facet is the insecurity throughout the newer, smaller Gulf States pertaining to their national identities. These states, it must not be forgotten, derive from essentially the same kind of cultural, familial, tribal, societal, economic, and religious background. There is until recently, therefore, little to necessarily differentiate a Qatari from an Emirati from a Saudi. The differences that have emerged in recent years in terms of the growth of a new identity with which to identify would be challenged and even eroded in the longer term were pan-regional ties to be emphasised at the expense of the sub-regional states.

Also, despite the often dire pronouncements in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama about Iran and its actions, it is difficult to escape the utility of these policy ploys. In short, whether the leaders genuinely believe that the Iranian threat is as dire as they maintain or whether they merely believe that by hyping such a threat this offers an easy way to galvanise and distract their domestic constituencies, is open to question. One could see a cost benefit emerging where the ‘threat’ posed by Saudi Arabia outweighs any realistic threat of Iran.

And this is not the first time that the Gulf States have undertaken policy by knee-jerk reaction. After the shattering invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 the GCC launched the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This was a plan to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the Gulf to boost the deterrence of the region. In return the GCC States would undertake massive investments in the troop-sending countries. Needless to say, much like the recent notion of expanding the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, this idea went nowhere and was quietly dropped.

Looking Forward

Many would note that the notion of a Gulf Union is not dead, merely that the decision has been moved towards the end of the year. Yet when the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait have shown such intransigence thus far, there is little realistic expectation that they will submit themselves to anything approaching a meaningful Union agreement. There are two clear conclusions to draw from this Unionising motion.

Firstly, that Saudi Arabia appears to believe its own rhetoric too much. The evils of Iran have been doing the Majlis rounds in Saudi Arabia for generations and it seems likely that the distinction between rhetoric and reality has been blurred. And while Saudi Arabia – the Lenny of the Gulf – may think that it is offering altruistic support to its allies, it must not forget that it looms large and is intimidating in its own right.

Secondly, while other Gulf States may over-hype the Iran threat sporadically for domestic purposes, there is nevertheless some sense of threat felt by all of the smaller Gulf States. With the swift refusal to discuss a tighter arrangement the other Gulf States signal the result of their cost benefit calculation falling firmly on the side of the status quo; to wit, that the fact that America is the key guarantor of security. With huge air fields, ports, and other facilities full of thousands of US personnel not to mention the world’s most advanced fighter jets and warships backed up by the most powerful military force ever seen, unsurprisingly, the smaller Gulf States don’t feel the need to run to Saudi Arabia, with its expensive but poorly trained forces. Only when this dependency upon America and its guarantees changes will the Gulf States move in the direction of meaningful closer cooperation.

 

On the death of Crown Prince Nayef 16, June 2012

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has died at the age of 78. He had been ill for some time, apparently suffering from some form of cancer, and had received long-term treatment in America and he was recently recuperating in Geneva when he passed away.

Nayef was elevated to the position of Crown Prince in November 2011 with the death of former Crown Prince Sultan. However, in reality Nayef had been the second most important individual in Saudi Arabia for some time given Sultan’s profound incapacity.

That the Saudi Royal family has suffered another key death within a year is concerning but can come as no surprise. The leadership is universally old with the King being somewhere in his late 80s or some reports suggest that he could even be 94 by now. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with the twilight years of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev dying in office in 1982 to be replaced by Andropov who lasted 18 months in office, and then Chernenko who barely lasted a year. While the move to a new generation of leadership took another leap forward with Nayef’s death, it will not happen just yet as Defence Minister, Salman will become likely Crown Prince.

Nayef

Nayef is the twenty third son of Ibn Saud, the key founder of the current Saudi state, and the half-brother of King Abdullah. He is one of the key Sudairi brothers, born of the most influential and important mother of Ibn Saud’s children in 1933, and he received all of his schooling in the Kingdom with no long-term studies abroad unlike many of his compatriots. After a short stint as the representative of the Principality of Riyadh, he became the Deputy Governor of Riyadh and later the Governor. From 1970-1975 he was the Deputy Minister of the Interior and he was the Minister of Interior from 1975 onwards. This position gave Nayef substantial power and prestige and he expanded the Ministry of the Interior exponentially and today it is an enormously powerful organisation pervading Saudi Arabia. In March 2009 Nayef became the Second Deputy Prime Minister and in November 2011 he became the Crown Prince with the de jure reality finally catching up to his de facto powers.

His reputation is that of a fierce conservative. Though there is no doubt that he has been an arch proponent of the Saudi Arabian line on Bahrain and has been deeply involved with various crackdowns in the East of Saudi Arabia over the years, this reputation is somewhat overblown and it is better to see him as a staunch pragmatist and conservative, rather than a zealous religious-conservative.

Nayef has four sons of whom the most important by some distance is Mohammed Bin Nayef, who was second in charge of the MOI and will take over now. There have been rumours for some time that the MOI itself will be split up into two organisations and another of his sons, Saud, would take over, but this is only supposition presently.

Abroad, Nayef has had an important role for many years. Despite his staunch and conservative nature, he has engaged in various overtures or at least discussions with Iran over the years, and was believed to be one of the key proponents behind Saudi Arabia’s troop and armament deployment to Bahrain in 2011.

In terms of reforms, though Nayef is, as noted, portrayed as some kind of arch-conservative (which is true in certain circumstances) it must not be forgotten that he presided over one of the key emancipatory actions for women in modern Saudi history: the imposition of ID cards. This allowed women to, by themselves for the first time, open bank accounts, sign up for University and similar moves. Though Nayef did not do this for women’s freedoms, but instead for purely security-driven concerns, it highlights again that he was willing to be pragmatic when necessary.

Post-Nayef

It is likely that Salman, 76, the former Governor of Riyadh and Defence Minister will become Crown Prince now. A body called the allegiance council was established some years ago to preside over such changes, but should not prove problematic in this instance.

Subsequently, the picture become much more murky. There are other Princes who are the sons of Ibn Saud – Prince AbdulRahman (b.1934), Prince Ahamd (b.1940) and non Sudairi sons too, such as Prince Muqrin. But they too are old, in varying degrees of ill health, and are, at the most, stop gaps. Saudi Arabia needs to come to terms with moving the leadership down a generation to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, yet this would likely be a highly fractious decision. With Prince Salman waiting in the wings, it is unlikely to happen this time, though the leadership will surely discuss who is to be next; a difficult but crucial decision for the future of the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia.